Strangelove: The apathy and nostalgia of Manila life

Another bomb blast, another front page story for every newspaper publication in the Philippines, followed by false promises of security and reprisal from politicians. Yep: today’s bomb blast, as you can see in the BBC article here about a bomb under a seat that went off, as some believe, others think that the machine was faulty and went off on its own. Why does this sound familiar? Oh, that’s right: they claimed it was a chemical explosion when the Glorietta mall was bombed a few years ago in 2007.

This isn’t a post about conspiracy theories, solutions, or frustration with the way these things seem to be so common in the Philippines. Actually, you may call me strange, but whenever news likes this comes up, I get homesick. Yes, homesick, and many people who just didn’t grow up in Manila under the circumstances I did with my friends at the international school will think I don’t know what it’s like to live in terror.

Actually, I only knew what it was like to live in terror in the post 9/11 world when I moved to the United States, because it’s become a defining characteristic of the past 10 years for how people in the United States perceive the world. Before that, it was another extreme in the Philippines, in which everyone knows the government is useless and corrupt, and that incidents like  decapitating missionaries like Martin Burnham were so common that it would only be a matter of weeks before people shrugged it off and moved on.

“As long as it’s not us or someone we know, we don’t care” is the common attitude in Manila, rich or poor. I actually miss Manila–partially because I remember my father would always be involved with the aftermath as a well-known lawyer. Hell, he was asked to be a defense attorney for the Ampatuan Massacre culprits.

Honestly though, part of the reason I miss it is because that kind of life of survival and anarchy molded my friends and me into individuals who didn’t get paranoid over what-ifs. It was a matter of being street smart, knowing the media and government are all bloody liars. But most of all: nobody claimed to see the world and reality “as it really is” like some pompous people I’ve met who took a few political science and anthropology classes in college do. They haven’t seen the world at all.

To an extent, neither have I or my peers, who have both claimed to be Third Culture Kids and lived during conflict in failed states. We have seen a facet of reality, and we experienced a world entirely apart from what Americans can’t even imagine. It’s not in TV or movies or the news, it’s real life. But it’s not reality. We are not more worldly. We just don’t have a strong voice of the government, media, politicians, religious fundamentalists, and corporate filmmakers exaggerating those facets of life and making it “reality” to the deaf, blind, and dumb. I feel more dread watching the way movies portray life in the same city slums I grew up in than when I was actually there. But neither that portrayal in movies, a college professor’s analysis, or my own experience are “right” about what is reality.

Home. Slum. Gang territory. Terrorist haven. Failed state. Vacation spot to pick up “easy” girls. There’s a lot of words people use to give different definitions and meanings to the same place. Putting “bomb explosion” and “Manila” in the same sentence makes most people react in shock and horror, but to me, it makes me think of last Tuesday.

Maybe it’s because here in Los Angeles, most people think that getting stuck in traffic, breaking up, and not having enough vacation time is their biggest injustice in life. But who am I to compare? If I did that, then I would be avoiding self-governance and personal responsibility.

An old roommate justified his not paying rent or flushing the toilet by saying that millions of people are dying in Sudan with the genocide and started listing off other world conflicts, saying that my complaints are petty compared to the so-called big picture. This from a guy who never left California aside from driving to Las Vegas. If we followed his logic and said our problems are small because there are bigger problems out there, then we would ignore these little problems since they aren’t worth anything. But the problem with ignoring them is that they grow and get worse. So I don’t compare, I see how it is relevant to me or the others around me, how it affects us–because if it does, then I don’t care about what’s going on around the world, since I live in the here and now.

Yes, I will do what I can for Amnesty International and human rights campaigns; I will apply to the UN Volunteers program, but it all has to do with the way I have categorized problems that I’ve mentioned before: 1) urgent problem, 2) important problem, 3) not my problem. Honestly, most world events are not my problem, but I do care, so I do things for what I care about. Otherwise, I take care of urgent problems, which are things that directly affect me within the next 48 hours, and important problems because they affect me later down the line or my friends whom I care about. Most things are not my problem or your problem–but I choose when to make them my problem at my time, not yours. And yes: I do recycle, donate to the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, write campaign letters for Amnesty International, shop at farmer’s markets, ride the bus and give up my seat for the elderly and disabled.

Getting back to my main point, there are shades of reality, and shards of reality. Shades of reality are about us seeing the same thing and interpreting it differently; shards of reality are about us being exposed to only those fragments and drawing our own  conclusions. They can call Manila an impoverished, dangerous capital of a failed state in the third world, but I once called it home. Even if we go through the days saying that these events are common and nothing changes, that’s no way to live. But until that changes, that, my friends, is home.

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